Cell Phones Support the Cause of Women’s Equality in Afghanistan

In the United States, women are still fighting for pay parity with men, and an equal seat at the boardroom table. However, the issues that we face in the US pale in comparison to the issues that women face every day in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban may be banished for the moment – and you have to worry what will happen when troops leave there – women are still at a critical disadvantage when it comes to the Afghan workplace since nearly 88% of them still cannot read.

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Part of this is a legacy of the years of suppression before the invasion. During that time, women just did not go to school, and, as a result, illiteracy is endemic among that age group. While things are starting to get better in some areas – 40% of school children are girls now – the literacy rate among women is about one-third of that among men. Worse still, some other areas are still under the influence of the Taliban, and girls are kept at home there either out of fear or religious conviction.

However, there is a bright light on the horizon, and it comes in the form of Afghanistan’s cellular industry. Although Afghanistan is still a poor country with an average per capita income of around $1000 a year, it has an extraordinarily vibrant cell phone market, with 60% of the population – that’s 18 million people – owning a cell phone. Cellular networks began in Afghanistan in 2002 when Afghan Wireless started in business – you can read more about this on Ehsan Bayat’s Tumblr page. Another three mobile operators have since entered the market, and now 85% of Afghan citizens live in cellular coverage areas, and there are plans to extend the coverage further. 3G services have also been recently launched in the country.

This cellular infrastructure is now making an innovative women’s literacy initiative possible in Afghanistan. Ustad Mobile, a joint venture between the Afghan Ministry of Education and Paiwastoon Networking Services, has launched a set of smartphone apps that offer language education in two local languages – Dari and Pashto. These are more than just simple apps – they give access to videos of teachers in classrooms, as well as audio so that students can correlate words with familiar sounds. The apps also include some mathematics courses, providing a rounded basic education for women who use the apps.

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The number of users of these apps is starting to rise, as mobile operators and cellular phone stores are encouraged to pre-bundle the apps with new smartphones. There are also plans to distribute a desktop version on CD, and to make the apps available directly on the ministry’s website. This may turn out to be a very efficient use of foreign aid money – an $80,000 grant from the US government was all it took to develop the software, and it is part of an overall campaign by the Afghan government to raise literacy rates to 48% over the next two years.